I work at the Shareholder Services desk at the Co-op. In mid-March I returned one week early from a trip to the Pacific Northwest and California, quarantined for two weeks, and then came back to find a completely transformed workplace. It was shocking: the business had been completely reinvented in less than a month. No customers at 10 am on Tuesday when I arrived, just a sort of warehouse feel with a bunch of very busy colleagues, as though all the grocery aisles were just for storing food for purchase, none of the browsing or chatting, just dry storage, cold storage, freezers full of future shipments.
I’ve been back at work for a month now, and the novelty of our current business model has not worn off, though it’s not overwhelming anymore. For the first half of each day, workstations are transformed, everyone either on the move or camped out in some unfamiliar zone. I check the centralized schedule at what was once the cafe register to see where I’m supposed to be when I arrive, but oftentimes the needs of the moment are different when I get there. Everything, including me, is raw material for making things work. A desk, a chair, a phone, a good pen, a Sharpie, a roll of masking tape. A stapler. Paper clips. Highlighters. Cart. Scissors. Clipboard. Gloves and sprays and wipes and masks. There’s more music, specific to locale. Michelle brings a Bluetooth speaker with her on her cart, emanating pop as she shops expertly. Bulk and Produce pump up the jams sometimes. Once I listened to headphones while I shopped, feeling illicit (we’re not usually supposed to do this on the clock). I chose a soft, ambient synthesizer album that soothed my nerves and floated me through my orders.
Phones at desks upstairs normally occupied by our Graphics department, Accounts Payable, IT folks, and other various offices now vacated due to the pandemic are linked into the Curbside Pickup Hotline (802-246-2800). Order-takers sit at those stations and painstakingly take down your grocery lists for 6 hours. The phones don’t stop ringing. I did that job once, and it was strangely exhausting. I dragged myself home that day. But for the most part the variation and the running around is kind of exhilarating.
Picking peoples’ curbside orders can be harder than you might think. I know how particular I am about my groceries, but I don’t want to take too much time on each one, so when we’re out of something it can be a bit of a mental exercise. I imagine the customer sitting at home without their favorite yogurt for a week and it starts to feel like a major emergency. But I do ok, I think. My main job is to call people for their credit card information. At first I was grumpy about it, but now I really don’t mind at all. As long as I’m in a good state of mind. One thing I’ve learned: there needs to be a rhythm to the card number conversation, otherwise we just stumble all over each other in a heap. I’ve learned not to interrupt the customer’s flow. One of the calls on my list the other day was a local orchestra conductor and I felt like our back-and-forth was turning melodic. Recitative, it’s called in opera. But I don’t think he noticed the mezzo-soprano lilts I put on “expiration?!” “security code?!” “billing zip code?!” One other thing I’ve learned is that all credit card numbers are grouped in fours except for American Express. The first time I got one of those, I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and I wanted to whack the person’s wrist with a ruler like a scary nun. But now I know what to expect. To all of you who have been on the other end of my snark: I’m sorry. There have been a few days of impatience and pointed answers. Just one side-effect of COVID-19.
Then at 2pm the doors open and customers are allowed in, two-by-two. The sky in the store gets a little darker, customers still stunned and their fear altering the atmosphere, from camaraderie to isolation. Men grip grocery carts with gloved hands, shoulders tight with jungle stress. Elegant women in black glide around with fancy 3M N-99’s. Hippies wait while the belts are sprayed with sanitizer. Twenty-somethings look good in their face coverings, like they’ve been expecting this and their outfits have finally come together. Everyone trying to keep their distance. Sights I’m accustomed to are seen anew: the plastic shields, the empty Deli cases. Bulk goes from feeling like a fantasy country store, with everything bagged up and employees behind the plentiful stock of whole grains and seeds, to looking like piles of emergency supplies. People approach my desk and it’s hard not to feel like they need special dispensation to ask me for things, because how dare anyone ask for anything during this time, and there’s just so much I can’t help with. But I’m there, I do what I can, feeling more able by the day. Since the Shareholder Work program is virtually on pause right now and that part of my job with it, I spend the afternoon doing other things. Writing, posting, answering the phone. I find ways to stay busy and keep things moving until I’m not useful anymore.
There are other Curbside roles I haven’t mentioned, like delivering the groceries to the cars on plastic carts; ringing the orders through the registers, packing them up and labeling them with appropriate information; “staging” orders so they’re good to go (refrigerated? frozen?); running the credit cards. And then there’s running the business. I am horrified at the thought of how hard that job is right now. I’ve definitely seen some tears. I do my three days and leave, tired, satisfied to have done my part, worrying I haven’t done enough, thankful for the opportunity to have been around people for a while. Every few seconds of chitchat with work buddies and customers – anyone who’s on the outer rings of my social circle – is like taking one of those Emergen-C packets (currently out of stock at manufacturer). Humans talking to each other is incandescence. Bubbles. Have you noticed? I feel like a monkey more than ever. I have needs. I gotta make some noise with the other animals, otherwise I don’t feel right.
We staff members get lots of compliments and appreciation for being on the “front lines,” but in many ways we’re the lucky ones. Our tribe is able to work together, we can feel our usefulness and disappear into our tasks. We have jobs. And of course the pandemic has stripped many people of that opportunity to feel helpful, let alone their paychecks. The best thing to do for others is to stay away, and it’s devastating. The science doesn’t match our instincts. It’s like climate change but on a shorter time scale: we have to rely on our brains, trust that major changes now are going to protect lives down the lane. It sucks. But I’m doing my best to accept the hard stuff and revel in the good stuff, moment by moment.
Alright, well, It goes without saying, but take care of yourselves in body, mind, and spirit. Change is the only promise. Hoping us all the best.